There’s no free launch

Campaigns more pre-emptive but marketers must walk fine line

How much is enough?

As Hollywood heads into a new awards season, Oscar campaigners around town are still smarting from the backlash over the last one, when two studios — DreamWorks and Miramax — spent millions battling it out for a prize only one could win.

The costly advertising war between “Saving Private Ryan” and “Shakespeare in Love” — and, to a lesser extent, various other top-notch contenders — raised a number of troubling questions, not least of which was whether votes in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences contest can be bought.

Needless to say, the Academy dismisses such speculation, insisting that its 5,400 voting members remain steadfastly unaffected by studios’ entreaties, no matter how insistent or appealing.

“I don’t think they lose any sleep over the amount of advertising,” says Ric Robertson, exec administrator of the Acad. “I’ve been around enough Academy members over the years to know they have the courage of their convictions. They know what they like.”

But with about 250 movies eligible for the grand prize, the best picture Oscar, it’s likely that voters appreciate at least some help in separating the wheat from the chaff.

“There are a lot of films to see,” Robertson concedes. “Possibly, an ad could have the effect of reminding a member, who might say, ‘Oh, I missed that movie earlier this year; I should see it.’ And that’s a good thing. But ultimately, the film must stand the test of being seen.”

From the studios’ point of view, pitching a movie to people who might vote on its merits is synonymous with what other industries do to sell cars, clothes or hair care products.

“In such a competitive situation, you have to bring your picture to the attention of the customer, in this case the Academy members,” says Bruce Feldman, a veteran marketing consultant who this year is spearheading Paramount’s Oscar campaign for “Angela’s Ashes.”

“That’s the American way,” he goes on. “Every business runs on some sort of advertising or marketing. The movie business is no different, but the subtext here is that it’s shameful.”

Still, mounting too big of an effort, Feldman says, “can work to your disadvantage.” He recalls the over-the-top campaign for the Diana Ross starrer “Mahogany” (1975), which included reams of full-page ads in the trades with beautiful photographs and not a word of text.

“The picture was shut out,” says Feldman, former head of publicity at Polygram and Universal. “There was a backlash. All the dollars in the world aren’t going to buy you an Oscar.”

A similar thing happened to “The Alamo” (1960), for which actor Chill Wills took out ads suggesting that it was “the American thing to do” to vote for the movie, Del Reisman recalls.

“People were bothered by that approach,” continues Reisman, a producer of the “Rawhide” and “Twilight Zone” TV series. “There was a certain amount of resentment that the actor was trying to appeal to patriotism.”

On the other hand, some films don’t stand a prayer without some extra hype. For instance, two Island Pictures campaigns in which Feldman was involved — “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Trip to Bountiful,” both released in 1985 — were believed responsible at least in part for bringing in a total of six Oscar nominations; when the big night rolled around, William Hurt won the top acting laurel for “Kiss,” as did Geraldine Page for “Bountiful.”

“The fact is that you could come out as an independent, mount a campaign, and win an Oscar,” Feldman says, quickly adding that the two pictures “were nominated and received the awards on their merits.”

Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks, acknowledges “a certain amount of backlash from the spending last year,” and maintains that the studio has no plans to “do it again at that level” for its big picture of the moment, “American Beauty.”

“Hopefully I won’t have to,” she says. “Winning awards ups the ante. If it gets Golden Globes, for example, then the spending levels increase. If a movie doesn’t get nominations, then there’s no point.”

In any event, last year, “It was Miramax that spent a lot of money first, and we did it in response,” Press says. “We did not initially plan to spend on the level that we did on ‘Saving Private Ryan.'”

At Miramax, a source who asked not to be named says, “If you counted ad pages, ‘Ryan’ outspent us.”

Regardless, such spending is seen by some as an indispensable part of the equation when it comes to impressing Academy members and the public.

“They’re susceptible — they’re just like anyone else,” Press says. “If you have 8,000 commercials on TV for a movie and then you have another movie that’s better but can’t afford that kind of exposure, the one with the volume is going to win.”

Press reinforces her point by noting that Academy members “do not have to prove that they’ve see all five best picture nominees.” And if they haven’t, “they vote for the one that has the loudest drumbeat.”

Mark Gill, who heads Miramax’s West Coast operations, says the scrutiny given the last Oscar race “was simply because it was such a close race” — a competition that “Shakespeare” ultimately won.

The marketing was secondary. “I wish I could tell you that we did some bold and innovative new thing that made all the difference, but it just isn’t so,” he says.

This time, he says, “we’ll be doing the same thing we did last year, or the year of ‘Good Will Hunting’ or ‘Pulp Fiction.'”

Miramax has high hopes for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a Paramount co-production; “The Cider House Rules;” and for lead actress Kate Winslet in “Holy Smoke.”

From other studios, early betting is on “The Insider,” “Being John Malkovich,” “The Hurricane,” “Three Kings” and “The Green Mile,” despite the latter’s mixed reviews. “Liberty Heights,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Any Given Sunday,” “All About My Mother” and “Angela’s Ashes” are among other films that have sparked Academy voters’ attention.

“What you’ll see around Hollywood as far as marketing is comparable to last year,” Gill says. “The difference this year is that the range and number of quality films from the studios is the highest it’s been this decade. As a consequence, you may see more advertising, but it’s simply because there are more legitimate contenders. At the end of the equation, it’s the movies themselves that make the difference.”

Peter Krikes, who wrote “Anna and the King,” agrees.

“You can throw all the money you want at a picture,” he says, “but it’s not going to stick unless there’s something to stick to.”

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